Terry Zwigoff’s cult film Ghost World concerns adolescent angst, outsiders, and suburban malaise. On paper, it sounds like one more obvious cookie-cutter melodramedy on burb life. But Ghost World offers a special magic to the formula: it poses irony and hypocrisy as the starting fabric of its shallow capitalist world, not as a mere novelty of cheap goofs and obvious gaffs. Effectively, it cultivates a depth and warmth of sincerity and sadness when relating to its absurdities. Adding to the film’s complexity, it scrutinizes white privilege with a self-awareness that, unresolved in its characters, reveals their obliviousness and furthers their pain and directionless guilt. Somehow, in all this, Ghost World surpasses the didactic, not being simply about certain ideas and issues, avoiding moralisms and its own flirtations with meta, to deliver something wholly relatable. Here lies a world of people with darkly hilarious idiosyncrasies, inviting us into their heartfelt sadness, their quiet desperations, as they attempt to claw their way out of the fake.
Two outsider teenagers, Enid and Rebecca, graduate high school, and so begins their summer of strange adventure. Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) is the more quiet and intentional of the two: she has dreams of moving into a place with Enid, and starting her life as an adult. Enid (Thora Birch) is the typical cynical Holden Caulfield, dissatisfied with life, seeing through the suburban comforts, striving for a reality beyond the plastic world she lives in. In the weeks following graduation, while eating at a “retro” diner, they discover an ad in a paper for a missed connection, a guy (Steve Buscemi) looking for a blonde woman he’d seen. Enid later calls the number, and thus a prank ensues, scheduling a date with him later in the week. Enid and Rebecca and their friend Josh are there to witness their antic unfolding. The guy, Seymour, arrives at the meet-up, and thinking he’s been stood up leaves in a fluster. They follow him and discover where he lives. The film follows from here: Rebecca works toward adulthood, getting a job and dragging Enid along to look at apartments. Enid begins an odd friendship with Seymour decades older than her, helping him to find dates to go on, while spending the rest of her time in a remedial art class to officially graduate.
Here lies a world of people with darkly hilarious idiosyncrasies…
A true form of authenticity, one that Enid has been so longing for, initiates her friendship with Seymour. Revisiting his apartment complex, she finds him selling old blues records at a garage sale. They talk, and he recommends a record he thinks she’ll like. The record strikes her, specifically Skip James’ song “Devil Got My Woman,” and that propels her into his lonely world, an obsessive collector of old-time vinyl and antique 1920s and ‘30s paraphernalia. His obsession with this lost era, greatly irrelevant to their suburban culture, rushes her headlong into his elemental status of difference and antagonism. Certainly their world is the ultimate in surface, one that Enid in numerous, and often hilarious shots, reacts to with a look of surprise and disbelief at its absurdity. Portrayed under Zwigoff’s direction (along with co-writer Daniel Clowes whose comic the film is based on), her suburban landscape is an extremely plastic phantasm of old and new culture, taken from a variety of classes and ethnicities, mashed into an amalgam of purposeless drivel. It is the ultimate in postmodern nihilism. Hip-hop blasts from the 50s “retro” diner’s table radio. At a show, a band of four goofy white guys named “Blues Hammer,” play “authentic” “Southern blues,” and scream out lyrics about picking cotton. This is all at a sports bar, of course, where the only real act, an old famous black ragtime musician, quietly leaves the stage after performing a few songs as opener.
Even in Enid’s art class, a place supposedly filled with genuine meaning and expression, one girl gains praise when she constructs a sculpture of hangers and later a tampon in a teacup, offering to the class feminist ideas. Enid, by mere expression, reveals a slighting of the girl’s creations. The meanings inherent seem almost too easily undermined by the construction and pretentiousness of the art, bearing a falseness, as if the girl is simply mimicking social-political concepts, wanting to believe and align with them but doing so by contrivance and attempts to impress. In all ways she appears attempting to be authentic and yet somehow doesn’t quite make it there. Her cheeky exuberance and serious-faced intentionality read corny and lifeless, as if at heart the reality of what she speaks hasn’t been fully processed.
The film’s traversal of the absurd and inauthentic is always met with a dry and dark sense of humor brought on by Enid who relishes in her skepticism and eternal wandering. Who can blame her? In a world of reproductions, layers upon layers of unreality so far from their original sources, it is hard to find grounded depth. Even when Enid and Seymour find substance in blues, written by victims of the very economic enterprises constructing the false world surrounding them, there still remains that they themselves are not entirely free and are contributors to the problem. Of course, both characters are white characters in a primarily white suburbs. Seymour’s obsession with blues music does certainly have its authenticity and healing capacity, but even this falls under some questioning: unresolved issues mark his dispirited behavior, as his engagements with capitalism involve the reduction of a suffering marginalized artistry into no more than a purchasable product stored in his white man’s hobby room.
In a world of reproductions, layers upon layers of unreality so far from their original sources…it is hard to find grounded depth.
Enid is herself, despite her grief, part and parcel tied to the falseness. At some point, she dyes her hair and wears late 70s punk clothing, making homage to something “more real” than what she feels exists now. She listens to old Indian rock music records. Her room is covered in shabby chic thrift store discards. Befriending Seymour is in some sense an act of rebellion. She clings to whatever is “dorky,” “nerdy,” “rejected.” Her whole life is posed toward distancing herself from her world, and yet that existence, like Seymour’s, is based in surrounding one’s self with things, objects, and fashions, old symbols and signs of a bygone culture. Both are alienated from the world they live in, but remain inside its consumer logic. Never meeting the oppressed or poor, they purchase items that perhaps represented them; they attempt connection to the Other in the only way they know how: by acquiring remnants and artifacts. Divorced further from reality, they subject it to another one, their own private exotification and romanticizing of the very real struggles of the marginalized and oppressed via purchasing power.
Enid’s discovery, among Seymour’s collection, of a grotesque cartoonish illustration of a black man, a former mascot of Seymour’s corporate employer, cements another layer of hypocrisy. Enid brings it to her art class and is asked about the piece. She stumbles through a series of answers, one explanation being racism is a more hidden and subtle thing than it once was. In itself, a dubious answer. A true-hearted point lies underneath her fumbling articulations: beneath overt signs of racism are the underpinning institutions and inherited habits and viewpoints of those of white privilege. Any harmless or innocent appearances of institutions and views are degraded at core, racism being deeply embedded within certain modes of culture, class, and limited experience. More than simply outward actions, it is a heart and soul disease that needs healing. To degrees, Enid and Seymour embody well-intentioned people, feeling and sensing societal issues, but they never quite address that more hidden racism Enid refers to in her class. They have certainly awakened to aspects of what is wrong, but are still blinded.
If there’s a hint of dissatisfaction with these characters it isn’t in hating them, as if anyone could be justified doing so, but rather their too real identifiable struggle with capitalism’s miasmic touches. Enid and Seymour’s intrinsic contradictions are within the very heart of what capitalism grasps and controls. It is a system that embellishes weakness and praises selfishness as the rule of law, requiring an addictive and fear-based mentality in order to perpetuate itself. The film’s look at people’s relationship to capitalism (and consumerism) is linked to a very conscious resentment. Every consumeristic action they commit is a harm to themselves and those around them. Cognitive dissonance is, in turn, a familiar and commanding force. Society’s survival and habit prevail, and so the cycle moves endlessly, feeling guilty of living in a world that necessity relies upon.
Both are alienated from the world they live in, but remain inside its consumer logic.
Nearly all this is felt and confirmed by much of Ghost World’s anesthetizing landscape, a land of lazy summer days in seemingly harmless comforts that lull its inhabitants into deeper realms of sleep. The rage incumbent in Enid and Seymour show members of a system biting the hand that feeds them, a system that will make even that rage a marketable item, packaged and produced for the masses. Such, as said, is even the encapsulation of blues into the vinyl that Seymour collects and categorizes. Enid and Seymour’s sincerity survives in their fundamental yearning, their slow death within these entrapments. One can feel their struggle. They are the film’s centerpieces, poster children to the suppressed frustrations within anyone who couldn’t fit in or felt on the outside of everything, especially in this capitalist world, a frustration exuded in small actions, neutered by the reliance to the systems that shaped them.
Is there any escape from the cycle? Enid’s cynicism and skepticism, her sarcastic humor, her constant desire to tear everything down, become her methods of finding, if not truth and reality, a confirmation that what she lives in isn’t real. Only by light of believing nothing does she see anything for what it really is. With that, comes a cost: to believe in none of her world is, in turn, not to believe in herself. It leaves her broken and bitter, disillusioned, unable to cope with her surroundings, and embodied with self-loathing and guilt. Her actions and thoughts are stuck in loop, unable to transcend her consumer reality. To break the cycle is to simply vanquish; self-annihilation as answer. The film’s title is, of course, apt. Yes, it is a world without substance, a ghost she lives among and in. But there is also the world forgotten, the long lost ghost of a time that seemed more genuine. Even more so is her future world, the ghost she aspires to become, in ultimately leaving town and disappearing. To become a ghost, definitively empty and sure of one’s emptiness, is better than to have shape and form and be effectively nothing.
The film’s subject matters have been incessantly decried for decades, but Ghost World manages to handle them with a certain quirk of style and subtlety. The emphasis on suburbia’s emptiness is profound. A soft and minimal hazed-out tone engulfs this world of boredom and repetition. Something simple and empty lurks within every shot. So primarily are the characters focused on that all else seems lost to their loneliness. Scenes of great social interaction are little more than an annoyance to the more intimate associations. Buscemi plays Seymour in perhaps one of his most genuine and saddened despairing efforts. And Birch is spot-on in portraying the invulnerable and unprocessed teen, who has so much to learn about what she’s feeling, but doesn’t quite have all the tools. Birch carries underneath every moment of cynicism an expression of fear and self-doubt. They are characters aware of the absurdity around them and within them, commenting on their given world with a meta-criticism which in turn gives them their relatability. The camera’s focus on their reactions to their world is the constant elbow nudge that lets us in on their joke. We know they know, and it is at times funny and yet heartbreaking that they know and hate it. Like watching a caged animal, the viewer can only want to set them free.
To become a ghost…is better than to have shape and form and be effectively nothing.
Historically, the film garnered the perfect sensibility of what early-2000s indie was, in both its thrift store chic and punk-informed ideology, a sort of prototypical aesthetic before the renaissance of the word “hipster” absorbed its meanings and connotations in the mid-aughts. The film still holds an influence, its stylistic developments felt in later coming-of-age indies like Juno, Adventureland, and Lady Bird, even reaching as far as sitcoms like Broad City. It achieves being serious and ironic without feeling cheap or trite about its content or characters, and maintains an honest awareness of what it’s doing.
With all its contradictions and ironies, Ghost World is an inviting, funny, quirky, and solemn reminder of the absurdity of the unreality the modern world has created, and the loneliness and alienation that have been birthed. It delivers emotional rhythms of sad and funny, serious and eccentric, threaded through a sense of dysthymia, a quiet and lingering despondency that feels heavier as the film progresses. It may be shot in sunny golden light, but it holds, at heart, the melancholy of a rainy day. For all of the analysis that can be made of Ghost World, it feels like a much smaller and more intimate film than its concepts, and that more than anything gives it lasting charm.
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Release Year: 2001
Runtime: 112 minutes